I don’t need to ask where we’re going. I trust this driver. I trust her sense of direction, and I don’t care about her driving abilities. I like careening around corners, springing up in the seat as the shocks bump over frost heaves. This is the north, and the roads take a beating. Logging trucks tear through woods, dripping pinesap and forest bark from row after row of harvested trees. And somewhere creeping along back roads, semi-trucks transport hidden waste from power plants. But I rest my head against the back seat window, happy to be seven years old, happy to let the music on the radio fuse in and out with the music I hum: a mix of elementary school rhyme, eighties pop, and classroom choir. I drift in and out of sleep. The repetitive thunk of small potholes wake me enough to see: yes, my sisters are still seated beside me; yes, my mother is still driving; yes, she knows the way; and yes, we’re taking that familiar road north, making the end-of-summer trip to the big lake.
The repetitive thunk of small potholes wake me enough to see: yes, my sisters are still seated beside me; yes, my mother is still driving; yes, she knows the way; and yes, we’re taking that familiar road north, making the end-of-summer trip to the big lake.”
I’m only seven, but already a water scientist. Part of my study, the one study where I share data with my sisters, is to test warmth in different bodies of water. At home, not far from the state border that separates Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the Northwoods of Wisconsin, we live near a lake, small and spring-fed. There aren’t any year-round homes, but a few cottages dot the perimeter. On the bigger lake, Superior, we go to the only natural beach we know, dip into waters icy as the Atlantic, or as cold as I imagine salty ocean water to be. At seven, I haven’t been to the ocean. This doesn’t bother me. Fewer people have visited Lake Superior than the beaches on the oceans. And this makes me proud, part of a special (is it corny to say Superior?) group. And now I am a tester. It is late summer, and the warmth of lake water must be compared, tested, and logged. I jump in the waves, holding hands with my fellow lake scientists, ages 12 and 14.
My skin is the most sensitive, so they hold me, dangling between their two different bodies — one stout, more muscular, the other lithe and stretching towards puberty, and me, frog-like, with sea anemone toes and fingers, the perfect water human thermometer. The waves reach one sister’s knees, the other’s thighs, and then me, stretched in between, crucifixion-like. When the waves come, I brace myself between the two sister posts, curl up my legs to my shoulders, so my bottom gets soaked and water snakes up my shoulder blades.
I scream. We all scream. And this is okay. It is part of our duty as a lake-water-warmth-tester scientists. How loud we yell is a measure of coldness or warmth. It’s a measure of surprise, and my sibling scientist team likes surprises.
We scramble in and out of the water. Reheat ourselves on the sun-toasted sand. Scrambling is a sibling scientific technique. When we test our own lake-water back home, there will be no sand, but there will be the dock: its wood planks warmed by the same sun. We’ll scramble in and out of our small lake, too.
Our mother/driver says it’s time we travel down, time to return home (and I think time to finish water testing and jump immediately into your own small lake). We leave our suits on to save memory. We’ve all done this before, the summer before last and the summer before that. We know (and relish) the feel of our own lake’s water after spending hours in Superior’s cold wet. Our lake will feel like bathwater, and we will love it even more.
We travel down, about one hour south from one lake country to the next. Our lake is named “Finger,” and this always makes me smile. It’s not so much like a finger as an entire fist in hang-loose formation. One of my older sisters showed this to me, molded my hand by pushing my three middle fingers down, my thumb and pinky out, said, Heeeeey, Coooool, in one cooing breath by my ear. My thumb is the small bay, and my pinky is where the lake curls around a marsh island. My sister tells me my hand makes the best lake model: my pinky is slim enough and has just the right amount of curve.
My sibling scientist team, in the second half of the study, runs into Finger Lake. Our swimsuits are still damp from Lake Superior. The water is so warm. We agree to pretend that the lake is our private heated swimming pool, because this is what wealthy must feel like. We’ve just returned from the cold ocean and are now enjoying laps in our own pool. No tourist has it so good. Our mother leaves us celebrating our scientific studies. She walks back up to the house.
We travel up to Lake Superior year after year, August after August. And each trip, we test water warmth. The years pass, I don’t record how many and I don’t remember the last exact year I traveled with my scientist team in full: sister, sister, mother/driver, and me, thermometer. Why is it my year of seven is the strongest of all the other memories? Was the day that perfect? Was one body of water perfectly chilly and the other perfectly warm? Maybe I don’t remember one specific day, but a mating of days. And maybe the waters are mixed as well: small, freshwater lake body mingles with the largest freshwater body of them all. And the wet of our swimsuits can only hold memories for just a few hours but long enough to cover traveling up or down.
A decade later, on the early spring morning my mother dies, I can’t find my older sister — the middle water scientist, the one with strong shoulders and tree-trunk legs. She is the closest to me in age and comfort. And she has left me and my other siblings. She climbed into her car and drove up. When she calls from the road, she says she’s ten minutes from Lake Superior. She gives a weather report: the air is unusually warm for so early in the morning, for so far in the north, for so early in the season. I tell her the air is the same where I am: warm, almost unbearably so. But no doubt the water is different. No doubt all waters are different.
A year after my mother’s death, I get ready to drive up to Lake Superior with my sisters. Before gathering our things for the day-trip north, we walk down to our own small lake. We carry our mother’s ashes in a modest urn, one not meant for show but for temporary travel. In an informal ceremony near the shore, we scatter ashes from the urn onto the leaves and bark beneath a pine tree. There is no breeze. The air isn’t stifling but is comfortably still. When we tip the urn back upright, the remaining ash settles, makes a soft swishhhhhh within the half-full container.
On the drive north, the urn is held between my sisters and me, three of us sitting in the backseat. The car is full of siblings. We discuss the climate.
At the big lake, we release the rest of the ashes, not on the sandy shore, but directly into the curls of waves. The lake temperature is now, and will forever remain, so very different.
Michelle Menting’s poetry and prose can be found in many journals and magazines, as well as in the chapbooks Myth of Solitude and Residence Time.